“The way all of this has been done just seems shady,” Johnathan Clayton tells the school administrators sitting across the table. “This is one of the simplest laws I’ve ever read, but it doesn’t seems like UT’s actions align with the law.”
Clayton is among a half dozen students crowded around a small picnic table in a courtyard outside Melrose Hall on the University of Tennessee campus, looking for answers. On the other side are three school administrators: Vice Chancellor of Student Life Vince Carilli; Dean of Students Melissa Shivers; and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs John Zomchick.
This informal encounter, surrounded by sprouting clovers and crab grass on a muggy summer’s evening, is the first sit-down meeting the Pride Ambassadors have managed to get with school officials since UT’s Pride Center saw its funding eliminated and its staff removed more than two weeks ago—a move that UT officials say was necessary to comply with a newly passed state law defunding the Office of Diversity and Inclusion over the next fiscal year. The Pride Ambassadors, an LGBT student group with ties to the center, has pushed hard since then to find an alternative to disbanding the Pride Center’s staff and funding.
“I don’t think members of the administration have sat around and said ‘let’s see what we can do to hurt the Pride Center,’” Carilli counters. “We’re working on a way to support the center that doesn’t circumvent the law, but that’s something we’re going to have to work out over the summer.”
While the University of Tennessee has continued to tout its support for diversity publicly, some students and faculty members have been raising questions about how the school is interpreting and implementing this new law. Why were the offices closed earlier than may have been required? Out of four departments under the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, why was the Pride Center the only one to lose funding? Could more have been done to save it? And was it targeted even though it wasn’t specifically named in the law? Right now there are still more questions than answers.
UT officials say they’re still trying to figure things out as well, though given the legal environment there’s only so much they can do.
“When I have those answers I’ll be happy to provide them to you,” says Margie Nichols, Vice Chancellor of Communications and Marketing.
In recent years the school has stressed its commitment to diversity on campus, creating the Office of Diversity and even adding diversity as the sixth core goal in the university’s push to become a top 25 research institute by 2020, among other things. The Vol Vision 2020 document, a guidebook to help the university reach its lofty objective, notes that exposing students to different cultures and a diverse opinions is essential for future success, yet UT remains less diverse than many of its peer institutions.
“While UT is making progress, the total number of students from diverse populations remains small,” the report reads. White students now make up about 74 percent of undergraduate students, down from 84 percent in 2010. The number of African-Americans attending UT has remained flat at 7 percent during that time, while students identifying as Hispanic, Asian, and multi-racial have risen to each make up about 3 percent of the student population, 9 percent in all. Just 2 percent of all undergraduates are international students.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion was created to help further that mission, to raise the school’s profile among more diverse populations, and to help integrate existing diversity efforts into different departments and the university’s culture. It also provided university-wide oversight for UTK’s diversity councils and commissions. Overall, the ODI and the Pride Center are just two pieces of a much larger puzzle, Nichols says.
“The reality is that it’s everybody’s job to ensure we have diversity on campus,” she says. “This in no way diminishes out support for diversity on campus. That responsibility will just fall on different places.”
But the Pride Center in particular was an integral resource for students and employees, advocates say, noting that people identifying as LGBT have historically been a target for discrimination. Campus Pride Index, a website that rates schools on LGBT policies, gave UT just two out of five stars, citing inadequate policies, counseling and healthcare resources, retention efforts, and other indicators. (UT earned three stars for “support and institutional commitment,” its highest mark on the report, but also earned some points for having a Pride Center in operation.)
“I think the lack of support that has come from administration has been disappointing” [since all this started happening], says Anna Masson, a UT sign language interpreter working with the Pride Ambassadors. “When you say nothing in the face of injustice you take the side of injustice.”
Some aspects of UT’s push to become more diverse have raised ire from state lawmakers. Most recently a series of blog posts to the ODI’s website—one encouraging the use of gender-neutral pronouns, another in December advising staff to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise”—triggered a deluge of grandstanding at the statehouse, eventually contributing to the current funding debacle. But this isn’t the first time. In 2013, UT pulled funding for Sex Week, a week-long program covering a wide-range of sex-related topics from discussions on sexuality to abstinence, after blowback from conservative legislators over student fees being used to fund it. (UT changed its policy to allow students to opt out of paying fees to fund the event.) Sex Week was one of a handful of programs specifically defunded by the new law this year, leading some to speculate that it may have been the Legislature’s goal all along. Others say it seems political will was focused on the removal of Vice Chancellor of Diversity Rickey Hall, or perhaps the Pride Center was the likely target. It all depends on who you ask, but in the end all three were defunded by the law.
AN EASY TARGET?
From day one Donna Braquet knew the Pride Center might someday fall in the crosshairs of state legislators.
“From the very moment we opened in February 2010, the same day we opened [then-state Senator] Stacey Campfield posted something about how terrible it was that UT had this place for these [LGBT] people on campus,” recalls Braquet, who has served as director since the center’s inception. “For the first few years we were very careful, and we were even told to be stealth-like because if we garnered the attention of the Legislature it would be over.”
But as time went on and the Pride Center became more integrated into the school’s fabric, those worries began to subside. In 2013, when the Office of Diversity and Inclusion was formed and Rickey Hall was hired as the school’s first Vice Chancellor of Diversity, the Pride Center was brought under its umbrella, earning status as an official administrative office for the first time. Before that it had been overseen by the Chancellor’s Commission on LGBT People. Its budget remained small, operating on about $4,000 annually (not including salaries). A graduate assistant and up to 10 federally funded student workers staffed the office during the week. ODI started pitching in to cover 25 percent of Braquet’s salary as director, a simple funding shift since she is already a full-time position as an associate professor in Universities Library.
Hall was hired to lead the ODI with a focus on recruiting and retaining more diverse students and staff since UT lagged behind peer institutions on that front, a move Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said at the time was needed to make the university a “more robust academic environment” and a “more welcoming—and more interesting—place for us all.” Today, UT still lags behind many peers in measures of diversity, but its focus as a part of the Vol Vision 2020 plan may be a testament to its importance. (There are no federal standards or specific requirements to become a top research institute, but instead a number of statistics and other indicators are compared with schools around the country. Generally, the accepted annual ranking comes from U.S. News and World Report.)
The center’s core focus has always been support for LGBT+ students and faculty. Over the years it grew to include a regular roster of programs such as a weekly series of discussions groups, an annual Ally Week focused on raising awareness of LGBT issues and support, Pride Week events, and a lavender graduation ceremony. For LGBT students, a main draw has been its resource as a meeting place where they could connect with other like-minded peers or work through issues. It’s a place to find support and acceptance, as its tagline alludes: “you belong here.”
Then, in August 2015, something did catch the attention of state legislators. All it took was a blog post recommending the use of gender-neutral pronouns (like “ze” “zim” and “hirs”) that some transgender people prefer. Written by Braquet, the original article was sent out in a newsletter and posted on the ODI’s website. Several media outlets misconstrued the posting as a university policy or directive, and mostly conservative state legislators decried it as political correctness run amok and garnered national headlines. Within a few weeks, university President Joe DiPietro announced the post would be taken offline, saying the controversy was “like nothing I’ve seen.”
“I think for the past year we’ve been sort of targeted, and by that I mean LGBT students and employees. Ever since that gender-neutral pronoun article went up at the end of August, and that’s sort of what started this whole spiral,” Braquet says. “Once the university took down that article, these students have not felt the same since then. They’ve felt attacked and abandoned because at that point they knew this university was not with them.”
While that wasn’t the only sticking point with state legislators, it caused enough uproar to earn a specific mention in H.B. 1066 and S.B. 1912, two sister bills that became law last month without a signature from Gov. Bill Haslam. In December, another blog post, this one encouraging staff to “ensure your holiday part is not a Christmas party in disguise,” earned heated remarks from more conservative state lawmakers. Some called for Hall’s and Cheek’s resignations. Hall would eventually resign, on May 19, the day before the bill defunding his office became law. He accepted a similar position with the University of Washington.
“I am not opposed to creating an environment where students of all backgrounds can find a place. However, this is NOT what the so-called Office of Diversity is doing,” Rep. Micah Van Huss, one of the bill’s sponsors, posted on his LordPickle Facebook page in December. “They are not celebrating diversity, they are wiping it out. It is the office of Political Correctness.”
Neither Van Huss nor Sen. Todd Gardenhire returned calls seeking comment for this story.
PASSED INTO LAW
A variety of bills taking aim at UT circulated through the Legislature this past session. One called for removing the entire board of trustees and making new appointments, while the original bill introduced by Van Huss would have used the money funding the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to pay for “In God We Trust” stickers for law enforcement vehicles. The resulting bill that did muster enough political support to become law totals just two paragraphs, taking aiming at a few hot-button issues and the ODI’s budget.
The first section of the law dictates that state money not be spent to support the use of gender-neutral pronouns, promote or inhibit religious celebrations, or fund or support Sex Week, the annual event focused on sexual health and research put on by the group Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (or SEAT).
“That’s really a free speech issue, as we’ve tried to explain a number of times,” says Bonnie Ownley, president elect of UTK’s Faculty Senate. “We still have a lot of questions about it, like if Sex Week can still be held on campus or if that would be considered university ‘support.’ We just don’t know.”
Those questions and others prompted the Faculty Senate to form a special task force seeking answers. It’s managed to schedule a public forum with university administrators on June 17, 1 p.m. in the Hodges Library Auditorium. Thus far university officials have said they, too, are still trying to figure out exactly what the law means and how to implement it. That mostly means working with legal council, and even having UT attorneys liaison with the state’s Attorney General’s office if necessary to hammer out a legal interpretation, UTK officials say.
The second part of the bill restricts state money from being used to fund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for one fiscal year, from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. According to UT’s own figures that’s about $446,000, which includes all salaries and operating costs for the ODI and the Pride Center. That money will instead be redirected to fund minority engineering scholarships, nearly doubling the amount of scholarship money available at least for one year.
Scholarship awards for the next academic year have already been issued, and it’s still unclear how the money will be awarded or tracked since there is currently no specific fund for minority engineering scholarships. Instead, the roughly $500,000 in scholarships the College of Engineering offers annually is pooled in a central fund and divvied out depending on a number of criteria, such as student’s home county, school, academic performance, need, and other factors, according the college’s Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs Masood Parang.
“Most of those students receiving scholarships may be minority or some are female students, but there is very little distinction,” Parang says. “There’s no dollar figure set aside for any specific group.”
Three other departments also operated under the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; most of them had more varied funding sources, and either received no money or a much smaller percentage directly through the ODI. Those departments would be shifted to report to different offices and keep functioning, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek announced in an email May 20.
The Office of Multicultural Student Life now reports to the Vice Chancellor for Student Life; the Office of Equity and Diversity answers to the chancellor; and the Educational Advancement Program reports to the Office of the Provost. Each of those offices have different objective related to diversity. The Office of Multicultural Student Life has a mission similar to the ODI’s, but is geared specifically towards helping students academically by offering tutoring and book loan programs, peer mentoring, leadership development, workshops, and supporting cultural programming. The Office of Equity and Diversity handles discrimination complaints and is tasked with ensuring the university complies with various state and federal anti-discrimination laws and regulations, including Tennessee’s Title VI Program and federal Title IX. The Educational Advancement Program is primarily charged with administering Student Support Services grants made through the federal Department of Education. Four commissions were also reassigned to report directly to the chancellor, including the Commission on LGBT People, which oversaw the Pride Center before being absorbed by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
“The Pride Center will remain a gathering place for students, but it will no longer be staffed by university employees,” Cheek wrote. The Pride Center space does still exist as a room in Melrose Hall, though it’s no longer staffed or recognized as an official administrative office of the university.
In addition to the Pride Center, only the Educational Advancement Program received money directly through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, though like all departments they’re funded through the university’s central budgeting process.
Educational Advancement Program Director Ronald McFadden say his department received about $40,000 from the ODI last year to meet a federal match on stipends awarded to some low-income students to help offset college costs and also to help fund a summer research institute from students looking to continue on to graduate school. A breakdown of the ODI’s budget provided the university included $20,000 in awards, but didn’t offer a more detailed report on expenses. It’s unclear where the additional $20,000 may have come from in that budget.
It took an act of Twitter for the Pride Ambassadors to get a meeting with school administrators. The whole encounter was scheduled through Twitter direct messages, a non-traditional arrangement that left both school officials and students a little perplexed but makes sense given the outspoken stance the Ambassadors have taken since the ODI and the Pride Center were shuttered. Like most everyone else, they’re just looking for answers.
But students affected by this haven’t sat idly on the side lines. The Pride Ambassadors, UT Diversity Matters, and other student groups have staged demonstrations and taken a hard stance against what they see as injustice perpetrated through state law. Since the center was shut down, an online fundraising campaign has collected more than $8,000 in donations to help fund operations and, perhaps, re-staff the office.
A recent donor contributing $500 as “Rickey Hall” left this note: “‘They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.’ Whether there is an office or a center, keep fighting. We are on the right side of history.” Hall could not be reached directly for comment.
Former Pride Center Director Braquet estimates it would take as little as $14,000 to reopen the center. That money would go to cover a $4,000 operating budget and $10,000 for a graduate assistant to oversee the eight to 10 federally-funded student workers assigned to the office each semester. Braquet, who has her salary paid through University Libraries, says she’d be happy to return as a volunteer director (as she has in the past) until financial issues were ironed out, though administrators have never given that option.
UT spokeswoman Margie Nichols says the university is committed to keeping the Pride Center as a resource for students, it just has to figure out how to do that within the scope of current legal restrictions.
“We’re examining the future of the Pride Center,” she says. “We just haven’t made a decision about what the future is yet, but there will be a future.”
Public Chapter No. 1066
Here it is, in its entirety: the state law that defunds the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the next fiscal year:
By Representatives Van Huss, Sanderson, Keisling, Jerry Sexton, Holt, Cameron Sexton, Calfee, Matthew Hill, Alexander, Rogers, Doss, Goins, Timothy Hill, Powers, Daniel, Harry Brooks, Womick, Ragan, Kevin Brooks, Sargent, McDaniel, Durham, Lollar, Hulsey, Byrd, Weaver, Terry, Zachary, Butt, Lynn, Sparks
By Senators Gardenhire, Kelsey
AN ACT to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 9 and Title 49, relative to state funds.
BE IT ENACTED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE:
SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 9, Chapter 4, Part 51, is amended by adding the following language as a new section:
State funds shall not be expended by the University of Tennessee to promote the use of gender neutral pronouns, to promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays, or to fund or support sex week.
SECTION 2. All funds in the budget of the office for diversity and inclusion at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for fiscal year 2016-2017, shall be reallocated in the university’s budget and used by the university solely for scholarships to be awarded through a minority engineering scholarship program. Any funds from the budget of the office for diversity and inclusion that are not used for minority engineering scholarships in fiscal year 2016-2017 shall remain in the scholarship program for use in future fiscal years.
SECTION 3. This act shall take effect upon becoming a law, the public welfare requiring it.
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